War, flowers, and visual culture: the First World War collection of the Australian War Memorial.
Given the rich cultural history in which the flowers and war coexist, it is surprising that the connection is largely unexplored in Australian visual culture. Although the flower is a ubiquitous object of commemoration, discussion about its physical, symbolic, and poetic value is limited. The poppy has been used for remembrance since the 1920s, when artificial replicas were sold to be worn on Armistice Day in honour of the dead, and to raise funds for welfare.  Wearing a blood-red poppy keeps the memory of war sacrifice in public consciousness. Yet in Australia there are no significant studies on the history, cultural significance, and symbolism of the poppy. The Australian War Memorial holds a rich collection of First World War floral images, but the significance of flowers in war is unexamined as a discrete theme.  In Australian art history, works depicting flowers by George Lambert and Arthur Streeton (who were both official war artists) have been overlooked in preference for their landscapes and portraits.
The question arises why flowers have been bypassed in art and war. Perhaps because flowers are traditionally associated with femininity and therefore relegated like women in society. War, on the other hand, is associated with masculinity and implicit concepts of heroism and strength. If this were a discussion of gender, it might be argued that historians have conventionally taken a "male" view of the past. It is not surprising, therefore, that the flower does not play a major part. When historians do examine the role of flowers in the Great War, the association is more often made with women than men. Adrian Gregory describes how women in Britain in the 1920s used floral tributes to express and acknowledge grief. Placing wreaths at public memorial offered a feeling of redemption by sacrifice.  Tanja Luckins and Joy Damousi discuss the importance of the flower to Australian women during the First World War.  Women decorated memorials and special sites, such as the gates of Woolloomooloo in Sydney, with flowers and written messages for soldiers who were never to be seen again. On one level the flowers made symbolic contact with the dead. On another they offered quiet commentary on the sublimity of war and death. Artificial flowers--immune to decay--symbolise everlasting memory. Conversely, fresh flowers--flesh-like and organic--are stark reminders of the bodies of unreturned soldiers; even more so, dead flowers. Gregory relates an episode of British war history and the social discomfort with decaying flowers. In 1919, after observing "a mass of decaying flowers needs almost daily attention", the government prohibited flowers from being placed on the Cenotaph.  One wonders if the decision was based on a greater concern than litter, revealing a sense the decayed flowers would corrupt the symbolism of beautiful memory.
While women and flowers is an important part of First World War history, the Memorial's collection prompts us to reflect on the significance of flowers to men. The collection includes numerous photographs, works of art, and objects, in which men used flowers as to grieve about loss, evoke the feminine, reflect on the metaphysics of life and death, and immerse themselves in the aesthetics of beauty. These works form the basis for a central claim of this article: soldiers and artists during the First World War used flowers to express emotion.
Dominant or popular ideals of masculinity often fail to complete the male profile, perhaps even distorting what it means to be male. In his major research on male construction, Martin Crotty notes that towards the end of the 1800s and during the early 1900s, schools, literature, and youth groups promoted values of athleticism and militarism in young Australian men.  These attributes valorised the ancient classical ideals of discipline and stoicism; boys were taught that dying for one's country was not only noble but the ultimate display of manhood.  The image of the typical Australian soldier--that eventually became the ANZAC legend--embodied these national ideals. This did not go unnoticed at Gallipoli where New Zealand soldier, Cecil Malthus, described his admiration for "the incredible physique of some truly godlike Australians". 
However, cultural notions of manliness did not reject femininity altogether. Alternative expressions of masculinity were possible "in different social settings".  Damousi writes about the feminisation of soldiers during the war, revealing the paradox between the rhetoric of war as repressing emotions and the opposite reality. Men often acted in ways that were "superfluous" to their job as soldiers, such as nurturing the parents of dead colleagues.  Likewise, they showed interest in floral, pastoral, and organic subjects, further complicating conventional separations of masculine and feminine behaviours. The Great War also marked a transition from traditional to modern worlds, when floral metaphors based on the ideals of moral truth and beauty were still commonly associated with the public image of male culture. This was a carry-over from the Victorian era when religion and spirituality played a defining role in constructing ideals of manliness--before "real men" became the rugged individuals living apart from old-world civilisation.  At the beginning of the First World War, despite urban and industrial advances, metaphors based on nature were still prevalent. This explains why the ANZACs coined the phrase "the flower of manhood",  and why official war artist, Arthur Streeton, called the Western Front soldiers "the absolute flower of Australia".  The Federation saw Australia as a mature tree, bearing flowers and fruit. Hence, men who fought for their country proved the nation was fertile and ripe. Floral symbols were widely understood in Australia during the First World War, and became a code for commemoration and remembrance that continues today.
Will Longstaff's painting, Menin Gate at Midnight (1927), depicts the ghosts of the war dead at the Western Front behind a field of red poppies. Men without graves rise up out of the ground and parade past the monument to their memory. Stephen Garton describes how, at first glance, the figures give the scene a pastoral quality, like flowers in the fields. On closer inspection, however, they are the "ghostly shapes of soldiers" who have transcended death.  The painting dramatically uses red poppies to remember those who were killed--a blunt reminder of the blood spilt on the battlefields.
Longstaff's painting is one of many examples in which the beauty and tranquillity of flowers speak for the distress of war. The term kalos thanatos, or "beautiful death", refers to the death and sacrifice of ancient heroes. Contemporary analyses tend to criticise such romanticisation. Sarah Tarlow argues that because the war dead did not suffer a beautiful death, pastoral and the floral themes were co-opted to disguise the physical violence of war.  The beauty of nature is used to glorify war and conceal the reality of death. Perhaps, though, this overlooks the subtle ability of flowers to oscillate between beauty and horror.
Longstaff's painting is certainly more about death than it is about the moral benefit of contemplating nature or avoiding the reality of war. Similarly, there was a shift away from romanticism and towards realism in First World War literature. Paul Fussell cites the many descriptions in which sunsets and sunrises are "literal and ghastly", rather than beautiful and resplendent.  Flowers, particularly red ones, embody the duality of the beautiful and the grotesque. In Siegfried Sassoon's poem, The Death-Bed, a dying soldier hallucinates he is listening to the "warm rain on drooping roses".  The image is simultaneously beautiful and disturbing; it conjures up the abject reality of the soldier's wounds through the disarming metaphor of the drenched rose.
Red flowers are visually arresting and suggest the frailty of the human body and the loss of blood. The "fleshy" nature of flowers allows them to be easily anthropomorphised. Frank Hurley's photograph of a Light Horseman gathering anemones in Palestine in 1918 succeeds in signifying both the glory and slain of the dead. As such the works encapsulates the tension and ambiguity between romantic and realistic representations of sacrifice, blood, and death. The beauty of flowers is a paradoxical distraction from the horror. Flowers not only restore confidence in beauty and peace in the face of conflict, but are the objects upon which we unload private and public displays of grief and remembrance.
Hurley's image is highly attuned to the concepts of regeneration and hope, and the importance of flowers to the solemn ritual of remembrance. The analogy between the red carpet of flowers and blood is vital. Colour was a new photographic invention when Hurley served as Australia's official war photographer on the Western Front and Palestine. Without it, his photograph loses its double meaning, functioning solely as an act of remembrance. Colour lends intense symbolism, with each flower simultaneously representing the life, blood, and soul of a fallen soldier. New life is also signified by the abundance of bloom. The solitary figure reveals the suffering and psychological isolation of being unable to comprehend or resolve loss. This emotional and tender image of male comradeship and respect in war, confirms Scott Bevan's account of "mateship springing up like poppies and prevailing in the horrific conditions". 
The Light Horseman in Hurley's photograph follows a long-standing tradition. Pressing and drying flowers is conventionally a woman's craft. In times of war, however, it became customary for men to pick flowers on the battlefields, and later press and dry them to preserve the memory of men who were killed. The Memorial holds a posy of pressed wild flowers collected by an unknown person in 1916 (almost certainly a soldier). The flowers were taken from the grave of Private Robert Alder, killed in France in 1919 and who was a gardener before the war. The posy is an affirmation of humanity and captures the Australian ideal of a nation built on ANZAC loyalty and comradeship.
Wild flowers are a pervasive symbol in First World War imagery. War diaries and letters often mention self-sown flowers abundantly covering landscapes ravaged by war. The flowers signify the war's goals of freedom and regeneration. Moreover, they represent the free spirits of the dead whose bodies lie under the earth. The flowers grow from the soil of their graves, expressing transcendence and rebirth. In 1916 Olaf Stapledon, who went to France with the Friends' Ambulance Unit, wrote a letter to his cousin describing "a mound of ruin overgrown with bright poppies, cornflower, & mustard, and often with patches of oats or barley flourishing on top, self sown".  Daydreaming and writing about nature helped many soldiers to cope with the horror of their situation; their letters and diaries also helped family and friends to think of loved ones more hopefully. Fussell argues "recourse to the pastoral is an English mode of both fully gauging the calamities of the Great War and imaginatively protecting oneself against them".  Describing the beauty of natural surroundings enabled soldiers to invoke feelings they could not otherwise articulate; nature allowed them both comfort and escape from the sublimity of war. For example, John Monash and the remaining 4th Brigade of the Australian Imperial Forces went to the Greek island of Lemnos to rest and recuperate after the battle at Gallipoli. In a letter to his walking club in Melbourne, Monash wrote of: "the sudden transference from an environment of strife & clamour & the wreckage of war, to this peaceful island with its rolling landscapes". 
Others didn't need to leave Gallipoli to find beauty or nature. In May 1915, a New Zealand soldier, Cecil Malthus, ran from Turkish attack. He later wrote in his diary: "we sprinted, thinking oddly how beautiful the poppies and daisies were."  For Roy Kyle the cliffs of Gallipoli were "dense scrub, most of it consisting of a variety of vicious thorns".  Charles Bean called it the "holly scrub of Gallipoli", with green leaves like a crown of thorns and berries like drops of blood. Official war photographer, George Hubert Wilkins, overlooked the thorny scrub, in favour of the red and blue anemones, rock-roses, and yellow broom growing wild in the region. The wild flowers would also be the inspiration for official war artist, George Lambert.
Lambert found the peninsula a melancholic place, especially for its lack of sun. He was excited to find a colourful patch of wild flowers and began painting them the next day in his tent. It was a cold and showery day, and he wrote to his wife: "my forethought of yesterday in gathering flowers and plants saved the situation and I have had a long day at still life."  The next day he sent another letter containing a preliminary sketch for his oil painting Gallipoli wild flowers.
By referring to his painting as a "still life" Lambert consciously placed his work in an art-historical tradition in which flowers have metaphysical significance. Since the Renaissance, the metaphysics of life and death have been integral to the critical reception and cultural importance of floral still life.  A translation of the French nature morte, the genre is perfectly suited to the subject of war. In Lambert's painting we see the influence of seventeenth-century Dutch still life painters, such as Abraham van Beyeren, in which bright flowers contrast against a dark background. The brightness suggests they are bursting with life but threatened by the darkness of inevitable death. In the same way, war threatens human life.
Anne Gray describes Lambert as a witty and comical figure who "... created fun and provoked laughter, and camouflaged his inner self with a kind of self-dramatisation".  The artist's dual nature certainly transferred to his work. For example, like many writers at the time, Lambert gave flowers a double meaning of being substitutes for people. In John McCrae's poem, In Flanders Fields, thousands of poppies turn their dark eyes to say "we are the dead".  So too, do the dark centres of Lambert's flowers that turn to the viewer. Moreover, the blooms stand in an Australian biscuit tin perched on a slouch hat. As they drape over the tin, the word "biscuits" is partially covered. The visible suffix phonetically sounds like "cuts" and urges the viewer to again assume another meaning--of picked (or "cut") flowers being like men "cut down" in war. A line from Herbert Read's A Short Poem for Armistice Day cites: "and men like flowers are cut." 
Lambert's creates a narrative about the sacrifice of Australian soldiers. As symbols of regeneration, the flowers imply the sacrifice was not a waste; lost soldiers are reborn and remembered as beautiful and wild flowers. Few objects can as poignantly symbolise both life and death, hope and grief. The grim reality of the death and bloodshed of war is described by the peace and beauty of nature. Lambert prefers not to dwell on the reality, as his poem reads:
Think more of perfumed flowers and blossoms bright And Lilies hallowed in history, Nature's profuse embellishment of vines In flowery gardens, blossom-laden trees, If earth is right well dunged the rose is red; Think not about the bodies underneath, Forget the dead. Weed out your memory. 
The Memorial's holds numerous First World War photographs of wild flowers. Scenes of Australian soldiers amongst wild flowers portray men in emotional withdrawal and silent--a stark contrast to the traditional image of Australian men as unsentimental and loudly outgoing. Of particular interest is an anonymous photograph showing two Australian soldiers at Allonville in 1918. The caption tells us they are admiring the wild flowers while enjoying a rest. The image has been composed with both men physically and metaphorically isolated in space. They do not gaze across the general expanse of flowers in the field but instead draw individual flowers close to them, like faces. This is a moment of two men sharing in grief. Taken in 1918, by which time thousands of Australians had been killed in Europe and the Middle East, the photograph captures the sad aftermath of war, when soldiers reflected on the deaths of their friends and their own escape from disaster. Again, we sense the unique friendships between them.  The soldiers are not merely admiring the flowers, but projecting their thoughts of the dead onto them. Here are parallels with Isaac Rosenberg's poem, Break of Day in the Trenches, where the poet imagines the roots of poppies "in man's veins".  Both photograph and poem romanticise the fate of the dead as being "committed to the gentle earth so that flowers could bloom above them".  Flowers rooted in earth have a direct connection with what buried underneath; herein is their "double life" above and below ground. 
The concept of imagining the war dead within a pastoral landscape is integral to many war memorials in Australia. Stephen Garton comments the Memorial is perfectly suited to being located in Canberra, with the symbolism the city's seasonal changes bring to remembrance and commemoration.  Another example is King's Park in Perth, where a sprawling reserve containing botanical gardens with acres of trees and wild flowers is punctuated with memorials to the 7,000 Western Australian soldiers killed in the First World War. King's Park is reassuring rather than morbid; the memory of the dead rests among flowers and leaves that are, again, a perfect symbol of regeneration.
Other photographs held by the Memorial are perhaps more chilling and ironic. Images of burnt-out and abandoned war technology lying in fields of flowers separate the man-made from nature. Official war photographer Frank Hurley photographed a derelict tank at Pozieres in 1917. The wild flowers and grasses around the tank emblematically protest against modernity, war, industry, and technology. With the First World War, technology became forever connected with killing and mass-destruction. The hard metal of the tank contrasts with and spoils the soft carpet of flowers; Hurley metaphorically comments on the role of technology in war. But the tank will inevitably be overgrown by nature and symbolically submerged by the rejuvenating powers of time. And perhaps here is a hopeful message about a return to pre-war innocence and peace.
A similar ambiguity between nature and technology exists in an anonymous photograph of Lihons in France, taken from the Australian front line on 12 August 1918. A dark plume of smoke rises over the horizon behind a field of wild flowers and grasses. It encapsulates the ironic but "sad contrast between Man's works and God's".  We view the scene as the soldier did0--through a maze of flowers to the battle smoke, as if through a garden to carnage. The fire in the background is the inevitable future for the soldier in the foreground. Or is the foreground the hopeful state to which the earth will return at the end of the war.
It was no coincidence that Arthur Streeton chose to depict an armoured car parked in front of a tree on the battlefields of France. The contrast between the precision of the man-made machine and the "disorder" of nature is concise and dramatic, and reveals Streeton's desire to return to a more innocent age. It also foreshadows the artist's retreat from contemporary life after the war, when he became a recluse, conservationist, and obsessive gardener.
During the First World War soldiers bought or made keepsakes for their friends and family at home, such as handkerchiefs embroidered with flowers and battlefield debris shaped into vases decorated with floral designs. The Memorial holds a Belgian lace handkerchief decorated with three wild flowers of the region: a Flander's poppy, a daisy, and a cornflower. It was likely destined for a female relative or friend in Australia, as a souvenir of a soldier's experience of the war. It suggests a longing for home and a feminine world away from the psychological and physical stress of war. Nicholas Saunders describes trench art--where empty artillery shells were fashioned into domestic objects--as the transformation of the "miscellany of war objects into more peaceful cultural forms".  However, it is also true that making and selling souvenirs became a thriving business for soldiers, indicating less altruistic motives. During the war, these "souvenir collectors" were the subject of satirical essays and cartoons. 
The most celebrated examples of trench-art in the Memorial's collection are by Sapper Stanley Keith Pearl, who fought with the 5 Field Company Engineers between November 1915 and March 1919.  He made extensive notes on his metal gun-shells fashioned into vases and objects with floral motifs, including a rose bowl, a chrysanthemum vase, a hatpin stand with daisy motif, and a dahlia vase. Pearl's designs are typically Art Nouveau, the last great style of the pre-modern world, which strengthens Fussell's argument that the Great War created nostalgia for nineteenth-century traditionalism. The objects again demonstrate the ironic contrast between the metallic detritus of war and the image of the flower. And there is even greater irony that the original destructive function is disguised by utilitarian home usefulness, a place usually associated with safety.
The feminine and domestic world of the home was affectionately described as the world of "useless things" in C. Baker's poem, Leave, written at the Western Front.  James F. Scott also alluded to the world of domestic arrangement and useless things in his 1918 painting, Nissen Hut, Mont St. Quentin. A vase of flowers sits in the foreground, inviting the viewer to contemplate the importance of beautifying spaces as a way of protecting, repairing, and nurturing the psyche of those involved in war. The flowers create a strong maternal presence through their succinct expression of warmth and security. Masculinity is conventionally unsentimental, while femininity is emotional and domestic. But Scott's painting challenges this convention, as the flowers would have been thoughtfully and "unconventionally" arranged by a man. The artist intimates the "need for affection in a largely womanless world", and the desire for domesticity. The Memorial also holds a photograph of a lieutenant from the 7th Australian Light Horse Regiment standing outside a tent in Egypt. In front of the tent is a garden of hardy-looking plants bordered by rocks. The nurturing of life in harsh and hostile conditions suggests the gardener's wish to return to more familiar and homely surroundings. It also speaks about conquering foreign soils, and of conversely standing back from the battle through the pacifist act of creation.
The Memorial's vast collection reveals a rich and intimate history of war and flowers in Australian culture during the First World War. The question remains why war histories and mythologies have not examined the importance of floral imagery in greater depth. Perhaps dominant cultural narratives surrounding flowers, war, and masculinity suppress the more complex aspects of each. Flowers are integral to public commemoration and remembrance of war, filling inexpressible gaps and providing comfort. Damousi, Luckins, Tarlow, and Gregory discuss floral symbolism within the discourse of ritual and formal ceremony. But flowers were also important to soldiers in the day-to-day experience of war. Leading up to the Great War society perceived distinct differences between men and women: men were strong and determined; women, passive and domestic. Thus, flowers were conventionally the latter's domain. However, the Great War saw a shift in this division, in which soldiers became inextricably linked with the feminine through flowers. The subject of war and flowers shows the complexity and richness of the Australian soldier, for whom grief, emotion, and tenderness became typical rather than atypical displays of masculinity.
 Mike Dash, Tulipomania: the story of the world's most coveted flower and the extraordinary passions it aroused (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999): 19
"Commemoration: red poppies", http://www.awm.gov.au/commemoration/customs/poppies.htm, accessed 16 May 2006
 Publications about First World War Australian artists represented in the Memorial's collection that omit examples of floral imagery, include Betty Churcher, The art of war, (Carlton, Vic.: Miegunyah Press, 2004); John Reid, Australian artists at war: compiled from the Australian War Memorial Collection, vol. 1, 1885-1925 (Melbourne: Sun Books, 1977); Lola Wilkins (ed.), Artists in action: from the collection of the Australian War Memorial (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 2003)
 Adrian Gregory, The silence of memory: Armistice Day 1919-1946 (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1994): 27-33
 Joy Damousi, The labour of loss: mourning, memory, and wartime bereavement in Australia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999): especially 26-46; Tanja Luckins, The gates of memory: Australian people's experiences and memories of loss and the Great War (Fremantle, WA: Curtin University Books, 2004)
 Gregory: 8
 Martin Crotty, Making the Australian male: middle-class masculinity 1870-1920 (Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2001): 1-2
 Crotty: 90
 Cecil Malthus, ANZAC: a retrospect (1965; Birkenhead, Auckland: Reed Books, 2002): 94
 Crotty: 6-7
 Damousi: 11
 Crotty: 10-31
 Cited in Stephen Garton, The cost of war: Australians return (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1996): 35
Arthur Streeton, letter to Nora Streeton, 26 October 1918, in Ann Galbally, Anne Gray (eds), Letters from Smike: the letters of Arthur Streeton 1890-1943 (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1989): 153-54
 Garton: 43
 Sarah Tarlow, Bereavement and commemoration: an archaeology of mortality (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999)
 Paul Fussell, The Great War and modern memory (1975; Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000): 61
 Siegfried Sassoon, The Death Bed, in Andrew Motion (ed.), First World War poems (London: Faber and Faber, 2003): 89
 Scott Bevan, Battlelines: Australian artists at war (Sydney: Random House, 2004): 99
 Brenda Niall, John Thompson (eds), The Oxford book of Australian letters (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1999): 166
 Fussell: 235
 Niall, Thompson: 158
 Malthus: 74
 Roy Kyle, An ANZAC's story, introduced and edited by Bryce Courtenay (Camberwell, Vic.: Penguin, 2003): 146
 George Lambert, letter to Amy Lambert, 28 February 1919, "Lambert family--papers", MS 97/4, 1-6, State Library of New South Wales
 Norbert Schneider, "The early floral still life", in Hans-Michael Herzog (ed.), The art of the flower: the floral still life from the 17th to the 20th century (Kilchberg, Zurich: Edition Stemmlein in association with Kunsthalle Bielefeld, 1996): 16
 Anne Gray, Art and artifice: George Lambert 1873-1930 (Sydney: Craftsman House: 1996): 49
 John McCrae, "In Flanders fields", in Jon Silk (ed.), The Penguin book of First World War poetry (1979; London: Penguin, 1996): 85
 Herbert Read, "A short poem for Armistice Day", in Silk: 176
 George Lambert, "Weed your memory", in Amy Lambert, Thirty years of an artist's life: the career of G.W. Lambert (1938; Sydney: Bloxham and Chambers, 1977): 228
 For a study of male relationships in the United States during the First World War, see John Ibson, Picturing men: a century of male relationships in everyday American photography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002): 77-99
 Isaac Rosenberg, "Break of day in the trenches", in Andrew Motion (ed.), First World War poems (London: Faber and Faber, 2003): 80
 Brian Lewis, quoted in Crotty: 228
 This is used to great effect in Hans Andersen's fairy tale, The snow queen, when Gerda asks the flowers if they think her friend Kay is dead and the roses reply: "we have been in the earth where the dead are, but Kay was not there." Hans Christian Andersen, "The snow queen", in Fairy tales, Naomi Lewis (trans.) (London: Puffin Books, 2005): 126
 Garton: epilogue
 Fussell: 55
 Nicholas J. Saunders, Trench art: the trench art collection of the In Flanders Fields Museum (Ypres: In Flanders Fields Museum, 2004): 15
 E.V. Paul, "The souvenir collector", in New Zealand at the front: written and illustrated in France by men of the New Zealand Division (London, Melbourne: Cassell and Company, 1917): 80
 See "Canberra personalities", Stand-to (February 1950): 28
 C. Baker, "Leave", in New Zealand at the front: written and illustrated in France by men of the New Zealand Division: 48
Ann Elias is a Senior Lecturer at Sydney College of the Arts, the University of Sydney. Her research is in the discipline of Art History, with specialisation in still life and flower painting, and aesthetics and war. These fields overlap in the area of camouflage. An on-going project is the interrelationship of modern art and camouflage warfare in Australia. She is writing a book on the still life and flower paintings of Hans Heysen.
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|Publication:||Journal of the Australian War Memorial|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2007|
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